No end in sight to Palestinian suffering after collapse of latest ceasefire plan
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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Middle East shuttle diplomacy was shut down on Feb. 7 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unequivocally rejected the latest pitch for a Gaza ceasefire from Hamas negotiators, calling it “delusional” and declaring that Israel intended to continue its offensive in Gaza until it achieves “absolute victory.”
The prime minister’s thorough rejection of a plan that U.S. negotiators argued had merit has been deemed a slap in the face for Mr. Blinken, who departed the region on Feb. 8 after his fifth visit in recent weeks. Public divisions between the United States and Israel have been rising and are now at perhaps their worst level since the conflict began in October. The collapse of the latest ceasefire offer portends weeks of more suffering for the people of Gaza.
Mr. Netanyahu told Israeli media that after rejecting the latest proposal, he told Mr. Blinken that “after defeating Hamas, we will make sure that Gaza will be demilitarized for good.”
What happens in the aftermath of the I.D.F.’s Rafah assault remains hard to discern. Where do the Palestinians go next? How will they live? How will they be fed and sheltered?
“The victory is within our reach,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “It’s not a matter of years or tens of years; it’s a matter of months.” The prime minister, continuing to reject suggestions of the possible role of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after Hamas, said that only Israeli forces could ensure a peaceful transition in Gaza.
The Israel Defense Forces are now moving to the next stage in its campaign against Hamas, an incursion into Rafah. The city of Rafah has become the last presumed safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had been urged by Israeli military up to now to treat the city as a safe zone. Many have by now been displaced multiple times by the fighting. Humanitarian aid workers expect a catastrophe if the I.D.F. assault follows the tactical pattern set in its previous incursions into large population centers like Gaza City and Khan Younis.
Only hours after Mr. Netanyahu rejected the Hamas ceasefire, Israel air strikes on Rafah killed 13 people, including two women and five children. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, 123 bodies were brought to Gaza medical facilities on Feb. 7 as the Palestinian death toll from the war reached 27,585 people. More than 70,000 have been wounded, and more than 570,000 Gaza residents—25 percent of the population—are facing starvation, according to the United Nations.
“An expansion of hostilities could turn Rafah into a zone of bloodshed and destruction that people won’t be able to escape,” said Angelita Caredda, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Director. “There is nowhere left for people to flee to.”
According to the N.R.C., any further deterioration in humanitarian conditions in Rafah would be catastrophic, as disease and starvation already persist among the displaced population. An N.R.C. assessment of conditions in Rafah’s impromptu camps reports that displaced Palestinians have no drinking water, showers or personal hygiene items.
Humanitarian aid workers expect a catastrophe if the I.D.F. assault follows the tactical pattern set in its previous incursions into large population centers like Gaza City and Khan Younis.
“Conditions in Rafah are already dire, and a full-scale Israeli military operation will lead to even more loss of civilian life,” Ms. Caredda said in a press statement. “Aid workers have been grappling with insecurity and insufficient aid for months. Attacks in areas where they provide food, water and shelter means this life-saving support will be impeded, if not entirely stopped.”
On Feb. 8, the U.N.’s top aid official, Martin Griffiths, added his voice to widespread international concern about a further escalation of the conflict. “More than half [of] Gaza’s population is crammed [into] Rafah, a town of originally 250,000 people right on Egypt’s doorstep,” he said. Mr. Griffiths directs the U.N.’s emergency humanitarian relief office. “Their living conditions are abysmal; they lack the basic necessities to survive, stalked by hunger, disease and death.”
Catholic aid agencies Caritas Internationalis and Catholic Relief Services have repeatedly called for an end to the violence in Gaza and the creation of unimpeded humanitarian access to the strip’s displaced communities. In northern Gaza, two small Christian communities have been largely cut off from assistance for weeks.
Egyptian officials reported on Feb. 7 that C.R.S. had delivered, since December, 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Egyptian Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade reports that C.R.S. has an additional 61 tons of aid ready to be delivered.
The Vatican has frequently urged a ceasefire and the restoration of efforts toward negotiating the long-proposed and by now increasingly distant two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. In a recent letter to “Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel,” deploring the global rise in antisemitism awakened by the fighting in Gaza, Pope Francis wrote: “My heart is close to you, to the Holy Land, to all the peoples who inhabit it, Israelis and Palestinians, and I pray that the desire for peace may prevail in all.”
He added: “In times of desolation, we have great difficulty seeing a future horizon where light replaces darkness, in which friendship replaces hatred, in which cooperation replaces war. However, we, as Jews and Catholics, are witnesses to precisely such a horizon.
“Conditions in Rafah are already dire, and a full-scale Israeli military operation will lead to even more loss of civilian life.”
“And we must act, starting first and foremost from the Holy Land, where together we want to work for peace and justice, doing everything possible to create relationships capable of opening new horizons of light for everyone, Israelis and Palestinians.”
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Feb. 7 that he was “alarmed by reports that the Israeli military intends to focus next on Rafah—where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been squeezed in a desperate search for safety.”
“Nothing justifies the horrific terror attacks launched by Hamas against Israel on October 7,” Mr. Guterres said. “Nor is there any justification for the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
Only an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages” could help to bring about peace, he said, along with “irreversible actions towards a two-state solution.”
Israel was broadly supported by the international community in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, but global support has withered as the death toll and civilian displacement in Gaza rose. Half of U.S. adults now say Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has “gone too far,” according to a new poll from The Associated Press-N.O.R.C. Center for Public Affairs Research.
Even the Biden administration, a stalwart supporter of Israel, has in recent weeks stepped up its criticism of Israeli tactics. But within Israel itself, there is little appetite for restraining the I.D.F. campaign and strong support for concluding the aim of the complete neutralization of Hamas as a political and military force.
Families of hostages held by Hamas have repeatedly blocked humanitarian aid into Gaza. Hamas is believed to be holding 136 hostages, but Israeli officials said on Feb. 6 that they believe at least 30 of the remaining hostages are likely dead. More than 100 hostages were freed in November in exchange for 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
What happens in the aftermath of the I.D.F.’s Rafah assault remains hard to discern. Where do the Palestinians go next? How will they live? How will they be fed and sheltered? Egypt has said that it will not accept Palestinians into Sinai as part of yet another large-scale Palestinian displacement. Though it is not official policy, that final outcome has been endorsed by a number of members of Mr. Netenyahu’s hard-right ruling coalition.
According to humanitarian sources, as much as 80 percent of Gaza’s housing stock has been obliterated or rendered uninhabitable. U.N. officials believe that it will take three years just to clear the rubble and decades to restore Gaza to its condition on the day before Hamas led a homicidal campaign into southern Israel on Oct. 7, provoking the more than four months of carnage that followed.
With reporting from The Associated Press
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